“Just look at the heads of his ordinary characters, categorize them, scrutinize them and tell me if this is not indeed an astonishing human menagerie!” – Octave Uzanne, Le Monde Moderne, 1899
“May Belfort, whom [Lautrec] represented in at least ten works, had gained a reputation for corrupt innocence by appearing onstage dressed as a baby holding a black kitten in her arms, and ‘miaowing or bleating’ her popular song, “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow,” whose lines had a double meaning which was not lost on the French-speaking audience: ‘I’ve got a pussycat, I’m very fond of that’” (Frey, p. 382). This would have been particularly amusing for the audience, as Belfort was in an openly lesbian affair with the English dancer May Milton (see PAI-LXVII, 526).
One of Toulouse-Lautrec’s greatest works is a celebration of celebration itself. Since the Middle Ages, “confetti” has been with us, for weddings, triumphs, and seasonal red-letter days. But in the 19th century, “confetti” took the form of plaster lozenges. They made a mess. They hurt people. J. & E. Bella paper manufacturers of London had a better way: flecks of paper that were as pretty as they were harmless. The J. & E. Bella Co. commissioned this poster from Lautrec, then featured it as the catalog cover for one of the poster exhibitions the company hosted at the London Aquarium. The result: Toulouse-Lautrec’s delightful, gladdening design popularized the new form of confetti, literally transforming the way the world celebrates. Indeed, for a period in the 1890s, a gentleman would whimsically shower an attractive woman with confetti to display his affection for her. Since then, Lautrec’s “Confetti” has become a great gift, celebrating love: in the early 1950s, Humphrey Bogart presented Lautrec’s “Confetti” to his wife Lauren Bacall to adorn their new home together.
The Café Concert was the archetypal form of entertainment in Toulouse-Lautrec’s Montmartre: a constantly changing, but familiar rotation of nightly performances, in intimate settings and attended by a cross-section of Parisian society. In 1893, the publishing house L’Estampe Originale decided to commemorate this emerging aspect of Parisian popular culture with a published portfolio of 11 lithographic prints from Toulouse-Lautrec and 11 by H-G Ibels, in an edition of just 500. Lautrec’s subjects include Aristide Bruant, Jane Avril, Caudieux, Yvette Guilbert, Mary Hamilton, Paula Brébion, Edmée Lescot, and Madame Abdala. This portfolio contains the complete introductory text by Georges Montorgueil.
One of the landmark works of the Art Nouveau period, this 1899 lithograph of Jane Avril is the second-to-last poster Toulouse-Lautrec would ever design. It was a fitting, poetic coda for the artist. Avril and Lautrec’s friendship blossomed with their careers. Beautiful but shy, elegant but melancholic, Avril was the opposite of La Goulue, her boisterous rival at the Moulin-Rouge. But with several superb early posters, Lautrec elevated her fame such that Avril replaced La Goulue as the star of the show in 1895. In the early months of 1899, Toulouse-Lautrec had a nervous breakdown and was confined to a sanatorium. Out of friendship, Avril commissioned this work from him. Working from a photograph as an aide-mémoire, Lautrec “distilled the very essence of Avril, where the serpentine nature of her dancing is emphasized by her swaying body. . .and the wrap-around snake motif. . .” (National Gallery of Australia). “She liked the poster very much, but her impresario refused it, and it was never shown” (Abdy, pp. 80-81). For this poster, Lautrec used an innovative process which required only three printings for the four colors used (Adriani, p. 411).